How One Plant in India Learned to Turn Carbon into Baking Soda

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As far as environmentalists are concerned, carbon dioxide and baking soda sit at entirely opposite ends of the eco spectrum.

One is a greenhouse gas we have far too much of, an unfortunate by-product of our modern lifestyle; the other is a beloved household staple used for everything from tub scrubs to toothpaste. And now, against the unlikely backdrop of a Southern Indian industrial port, the two are being linked together in a truly revolutionary way.

A coal-fired power plant based near Chennai, India, has been outfitted with a method of carbon capture developed by London-based Carbon Clean Solutions Limited (CCSL). This method allows for carbon dioxide emissions to be captured from the plant and used by Indian firm Tuticorin Alkali Chemicals & Fertilizers to create soda ash, instead of polluting the atmosphere.

Grist explains the process:

“As the chemical plant’s coal-fired boiler releases flue gas, a spritz of a patented new chemical strips out the molecules of CO2. The captured CO2 is then mixed with rock salt and ammonia to make baking soda.”

Bam. It sounds so simple, doesn’t it?

This process is wildly significant not only because it kills two birds with one stone — eliminating a costly unwanted product while also creating a profitable commodity at the same time — but because it revolutionizes the process of carbon capturing.

Good Business Sense

Although carbon capture isn’t a new process, being able to do something with the captured carbon is. Historically, carbon capture initiatives have sought to keep the gas from polluting our atmosphere by simply burying it deep within the ground. This method is effective but costly, and the carbon ends up just sitting there unused. Companies that wished to capture emissions typically had to shell out of pocket or rely on government subsidies in order to do so. This process involved added work on the company’s part and often added cost, too.

This new method, however, provides a considerable incentive to become greener, an enticing proposition for businesses that are more often motivated by a growing bottom line than a thriving Mother Nature. If capturing emissions is not only easy but also comes at no cost to you, why not do it?

In an interview with BBC Radio 4, the firm’s managing director was clear about his motivation for using the captured CO2 and didn’t seem to rate the environmental effectiveness very highly, stating plainly, “I am a businessman. I never thought about saving the planet. I needed a reliable stream of CO2, and this was the best way of getting it.”

And perhaps his lack of enthusiasm is precisely the point. If eco tech is going to truly catch on, it’s got to appeal to those who care about supply and demand rather than those who become giddy over a new way to reduce, reuse and recycle.

It’s precisely this dollars-and-sense sensibility that may make this new technology a hit with financially focused businesses. “This project is a game-changer,” said Aniruddha Sharma, CEO of CCSL. “This is a project that doesn’t rely on government funding or subsidies — it just makes great business sense.”

A Strong Start

With the carbon converting process running at this one plant in India, its inventors say they can keep 60,000 tons of Co2 out of the earth’s atmosphere. And for those of us who have no idea how to conceptualize that number (ahem), a 60,000 ton reduction in carbon emissions is like taking almost 13,000 cars off the road for a year.

Yeah. This is huge.

This number will only increase as more companies join in — interest in this process has been fierce — and its inventors say they hope that the technology will be able to capture 5 to 10 percent of the world’s coal emissions. A small percentage, yes, but it’s a start and an incredibly strong one at that.

And, in a not altogether unrelated footnote to this story, given the current political climate both in the U.S. and across the pond, I think it’s worth noting that the chemists behind CCSL are immigrants.

The Guardian reports that co-founders Aniruddha Sharma and Prateek Bumb’s earth-changing idea was unable to attract financial support in their home country, so they left for greener pastures. “They failed to find Indian finance and were welcomed instead by the UK government, which offered grants and the special entrepreneur status that whisks them through the British border,” the article says. And because they did, the earth got a little greener.

Now, if you’re wondering what to do with all of that baking soda, don’t worry. We’ve got your back. How about a brightening face scrub, a simple tub cleaner or even a DIY shampoo?

Featured photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Madeleine Somerville

Madeleine Somerville is the author of All You Need Is Less: An Eco-Friendly Guide to Guilt-Free Green Living and Stress-Free Simplicity. She is a writer, wannabe hippie and lover of soft cheeses. She lives in Edmonton, Canada, with her daughter. You can also find Madeleine at her blog, Sweet Madeleine.